Abim Thomas is a counsel in Goodwin Proctor’s Litigation Department and a member of its White Collar Crime and Government Investigations, Securities Litigation, and Gaming, Gambling & Sweepstakes Practices. Abim joined Goodwin Procter in 2012 after serving as Deputy Chief Legal Counsel to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and focuses her practice on representing operating companies, entrepreneurs, and investors in the gaming and gambling field. Abim is President of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association, serves on the board of the Women’s Bar Foundation and was recently selected by the Women’s Bar Association to serve as a mentor for its Women’s Leadership Initiative. At the BBA, she served as a member of the 2013-2014 Beacon Award Selection Committee and serves on the Board of Editors of the Boston Bar Journal. She is a member of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services and has worked for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in both Boston and San Francisco.
1. Not many attorneys have the opportunity to work directly with the governor — can you share any stories about your time as Deputy Chief Legal Counsel and what you gained from it?
Having the opportunity to work with Governor Patrick meant having the opportunity to learn from an incredible leader. In that job, I learned the importance of listening as well as the importance of having a voice. During meetings, the Governor always made sure to get everyone’s input. He would go around the table and ask everyone for their opinion. He would literally go from person to person! He always made sure to get everyone – no one was skipped – and everyone’s opinion was just as important. His decisions were informed by these opinions. His final decision may have been different from where he started, but if it was, it was because he put such great value in other people’s ideas and appreciated the views they had to offer.
I remember the first time I got the chance to experience this. It’s also the first time I learned how important it was not just to listen, but also to have a voice. At one of my first meetings, the Governor went around the room and asked people for their opinions. To my surprise, they were actually giving them. He got to me and it didn’t even occur to me to give mine – that is, my honest personal opinion. I thought I was there to offer legal advice, unbiased legal advice based solely on the law. So when the Governor got to me, I said, “Oh, I’m just here to make sure whatever decision is made is legal. I don’t have an opinion.” He did what I’ve since seen him do to other people, and what I quickly learned never to have happen to me again: he just tipped his glasses down his nose, peered over them like he didn’t understand why I’d taken that approach, and then quietly moved on. I think it’s safe to say that everyone else probably gave their opinion after that!
It was an important lesson. I learned that to him, my opinion, along with everyone else’s opinion, had value. He appreciates that every decision he makes as Governor has an impact on real people. I’ve always gotten the sense that he feels like he has to make decisions informed by what real people have gone through, and that everyone has their own story and their own perspective. Anyone who’s ever worked with him would agree on what a great leader, mentor, and person he is.
2. What leadership lessons did you learn from past presidents of the MBLA? What do you hope to impart in your own presidency and what legacy are you hoping to leave?
Like the Governor, past presidents of the MBLA taught me to listen to other people’s ideas, because some of the best ideas come from people with different perspectives and experiences than your own. Having that open mind to hear others’ opinions makes for a better outcome than simply running with your own ideas. Past presidents also taught me to be decisive. There are always going to be great ideas and great dialogue, but as a leader, you need settle on a decision and implement it so that you can move the organization forward. This is something that I also learned from working with the Governor. He would approach a decision by making sure there was a great discussion of all of the issues. But whenever the final decision was made, it really was final. No matter what the discussion was that came before, we were all on board to implement that decision. So as an organization, our goal is to come up with solutions informed by different perspectives and then to implement them and drive the organization forward. Every year is an opportunity for any organization, including the MBLA, to get bigger, better and stronger. Everything every past leader of the organization has done has made that possible. I wouldn’t be in this role without them. Big shout-outs to Mo Cowan, Wayne Budd, Richard Soden, Damian Wilmot, Rachael Rollins, and Serge Georges – and all the other MBLA presidents who came before me!
As for a more practical legacy, I wanted to make sure that the MBLA retains the institutional history that it now has on the board. Thanks to past presidents, I and other members have been involved in the organization for several years. We’ve watched what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and come up with new ideas to advance the mission of the organization. Each year, the organization also welcomes new members, new leadership, new ideas and new energy. To keep the great knowledge from the past as a foundation that can be built on, I am asking each committee chair to put together an exit memo that will get passed along to the new committee chairs to help preserve that institutional knowledge. I found that each new leader was often reinventing the wheel. Next year, the new leadership will have the benefit of knowing what worked, what didn’t work, what can be replicated and what ideas maybe didn’t get a chance to get implemented this year. I hope to leave that to the next board so that whether they are returning members or new members, they don’t have to remember or guess at everything that happened over the last year!
3. How has the work and structure of the SJC Committee on Pro Bono Services informed your own personal philosophy on and approach to leadership?
For some background, the Committee is led by Justice Gants and chaired by Sue Finegan of Mintz Levin this year. Damian Wilmot is a former member of the Committee and I suspect floated my name to fill a vacancy on the Committee, which was has been a great opportunity. The Committee is made up of an incredible group of people – representatives from government, private practice, legal services, and the judiciary. As I mentioned earlier, this allows for many different perspectives and many great ideas.
One of the things we do as a Committee is give out the Adams Pro Bono Publico Awards every year. The awards go to firms, companies, and individuals – lawyers and law students – who have done exemplary pro bono work. We also visit area law schools to hear about their pro bono programs. It’s amazing to see young leaders describe the pro bono work they take on in addition to their regular course load. These students are passionate and inspire fellow students as well as practicing attorneys.
The Committee works on getting people interested and committed to doing pro bono. The great thing about the Committee is that it’s focused on doing what you can, with what you have, where you are. No matter where or who you are, you can have an impact through pro bono. This is reflected in the Committee’s various sub-committees that work to get everyone involved in pro bono work – from government lawyers to stay-at-home parents. It’s all about how to engage them and keep them interested in doing pro bono.
4. Is there anything else that’s been important in your experience of leadership that we haven’t covered yet?
I just want to say that no profile would be complete without recognizing my parents. Every day I realize I’m the person I am because of them. They are both amazing leaders in their own right, and they are in completely different universes! My mom is an activist and a leader within that community, and my dad worked for the UN and was a leader in African development — and continues to work in that area, even though he’s retired. As leaders and parents, they were always decisive and understood the importance of speaking with one voice. I’m sure there was a lot of discussion behind the scenes about how to raise us kids, but when a decision was made, it was final!